Mister Slaughter


Robert McCammon

To the memory of my friend,

Charles L. Grant 

PART ONE: The Monster's Tooth


Listen! Said the October wind, as it swirled and swooped through the streets of New York. I have a story to tell!

About change in the weather, and the whethers of men! Whether this one staggering past, the spindly gent, shall right himself against my onslaught before I take him to the wall, or whether that one there, with his prodigious belly, shall be fast enough to catch his tricorn as I throw it from his head! With a shove and a shriek I pass through the town, and what fast horse might ride me down?

None, thought Matthew Corbett in reply.

To be sure! Respect my comings and goings, and know that something unseen may prove a force no man may master.

Of that Matthew was undeniably certain, for he was having one devil of a time holding onto his own tricorn and balancing himself against the blasts.

It was near eight-thirty on a Thursday night, this second week of October. The young man was on a mission. He had been told to be at the corner of Stone and Broad streets at half past eight, and if he valued his hide he would report as ordered. Hudson Greathouse, his associate and senior member of the Herrald Agency, was in no mood these days to brook Matthew any easement concerning who was the boss and who was well; it was true enough, the slave.

But, as Matthew continued his brisk battle south along Queen Street with other citizens seemingly pushing against invisible walls in one direction or flying like bundles of empty clothes past him in the other, he thought that Greathouse's harsh attitude of late had more to do with celebrity than slavery.

After all, Matthew was famous.

Your hat's getting a bit high, don't you think? Greathouse had often asked since the successful conclusion of the mystery concerning the Queen of Bedlam.

Yes, Matthew had answered, as calmly as possible when faced with a human bull ready to charge any utterance that had the agitation of a red flag. But I do wear it well. Which was not enough to make the bull charge, but enough to make it snort with ominous anticipation of future violence.

The truth being, Matthew really was a celebrity. His exploits to determine the identity of the Masker and his near demise at the Chapel estate in the summer had given the town's printmaster, Marmaduke Grigsby, enough material for a barrage of Earwigs that made the broadsheet even more popular than the Saturday night dogfights up at Peck's Wharf. The initial story, written right after the end of the episode in July, had been restrained and factual enough, due to High Constable Gardner Lillehorne's threats to set fire to the printing press, but after Marmaduke's granddaughter Berry had detailed her own part in the picture the old newshound had nearly begun baying at the moon outside Matthew's residence, which was a refurbished dairyhouse just behind Grigsby's own home and printshop.

Out of decorum and common sense, Matthew had resisted telling the particulars of the tale, but in time his defenses had been weakened and finally crushed. By the third week of September the 'Untold Story of our Own Matthew Corbett's Adventure with Venomous Villains and Threat of A Hideous Death, Part the First' was set in type, and the flames of industry-and the Grigsby imagination-had really started burning.

Whereas one day Matthew was simply a young man of twenty-three who had risen by fate and circumstance from New York orphan to magistrate's clerk to an associate 'problem solver' at the London-based Herrald Agency, he was by the following afternoon being trailed by an ever-swelling mob of people who thrust upon him quills, inkpots and Earwigs so as to sign his name across the premier chapter of this adventure, which he hardly recognized anymore as being his own experience. It was apparent that whatever Marmaduke did not know for sure, he was certain to invent.

By the third and final chapter, published last week, Matthew had been transformed from a simple citizen among the nearly five-thousand other New Yorkers of 1702 into a knight of justice who had not only prevented the collapse of the colony's economic underpinnings but also saved every maiden of the town from being ravished by Chapel's minions. Running with Berry for their lives across a dead vineyard with fifty killers and ten trained vultures at their backs? Fighting a trio of blood-crazed Prussian swordsmen? Well, there was a seed of truth at the center of this fiction, but the fruit around it was a fantasy.

Nevertheless, the series had been a boon for Grigsby and the Earwig, and was much discussed not only in the taverns but around the wells and horse troughs. It was said that even Governor Lord Cornbury had been seen strolling the Broad Way one afternoon, wearing a yellow wig, white gloves and his feminine finery in tribute to his cousin, Queen Anne, as he read the most recent broadsheet with rapt, purple-painted eyes.

A gritty gust at the intersection of Queen and Wall streets whirled around Matthew the commingled aromas of fish, tarbuckets, wharf pilings, stockyard animals and their fodder, the contents of chamberpots thrown from house windows onto the cobblestones, and the bittersweet winey smell of the East River at night. If Matthew was not in the heart of New York, he was surely in its nose.

The wind had whipped into many of the lanterns that hung from street-corner posts and put the quit to their flames. Every seventh house was required by law to hang out a lamp, but tonight no man-not the wandering constables nor even their chief Lillehorne, for all his own puffery-might command the wind to spare a wick. This unceasing tumult, which had begun around five o'clock and showed no signs of abatement, had brought Matthew to his philosophical mental discussion with the bellowing bully. He had to hurry now, for even without consulting the silver watch in his waistcoat pocket he knew he was a few minutes late.

Soon enough, with the wind now pushing at his back, Matthew crossed the cobbles of Broad Street and by the tortured candle of a remaining lamp spied his taskmaster waiting for him ahead. Their office was only a little further along Stone Street at Number Seven, up a flight of narrow stairs into a loft said to be haunted by the previous tenants who'd murdered each other over coffee beans. Matthew had heard a few creaks and thumps in the last few weeks, but he was sure those were just the complaints of Dutch building stones settling into English earth.

Before Matthew could fully reach Hudson Greathouse, who wore a woolen monmouth cap and a long dark cloak that flailed about him like raven's wings, the other man strode forward to meet him and, in passing, said

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